Rice cereal has played an essential role in introducing infants to solid foods for decades. But, after recent reports found high levels of heavy metals in baby food, you might wonder whether rice cereal for babies is safe. Let’s dive into the latest research and recommendations!
For many years, parents and pediatricians have considered rice cereal one of the best first foods for babies. The consistency is perfect for infants learning to mouth and swallow solid foods. In addition, it’s fortified with iron, easy to digest, and it has a low potential for allergic reactions.
Recently, baby cereal companies have been in the spotlight, and it’s not good publicity. A few years ago, Consumer Reports found high levels of arsenic in baby rice cereals.
Here’s what you need to know about rice cereal and some advice on keeping arsenic levels to a minimum.
What Are the Benefits of Baby Rice Cereal?
Single-grain cereals such as rice cereal are easy for a parent to modify the texture so baby can eat it, and it’s easy on the infant digestive system.
Unlike wheat cereals, rice cereal doesn’t contain the common food allergens, wheat and gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat products.
There’s nothing wrong with gluten if you don’t have a gluten allergy. But when you’re starting a baby on solids, you want to start with foods that aren’t likely to cause an allergic response or intolerance.
Baby rice cereal is a flake and you mix in breastmilk or formula to “reconstitute” it. It’s an easy first food.
Lumps are minimal when you mix the cereal to a pudding-like consistency, making it a low risk for choking. Babies can mouth the cereal and easily swallow a spoonful.
Rice cereal is also a source of iron for babies, which is important for baby brain development. In fact, studies show that iron-fortified rice cereal (and other fortified grain-based cereals) prevent the occurrence of iron deficiency and anemia in babies.
[Listen to the podcast]: World-renowned iron researcher, Dr. Michael Georgieff, on iron in children.
Also, rice cereal may help ease tummy discomfort. It’s often one of the go-to foods for a child with diarrhea.
What Are the Dangers of Rice Cereal for Babies?
In 2012 and 2014, Consumer Reports found high levels of heavy metals in baby food such as arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium. For example, rice cereal contains as much as 6 times more arsenic than other baby cereals.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring heavy metal found in soil and the environment. Many foods have trace amounts of arsenic. However, rice has higher levels of inorganic arsenic than other foods because it absorbs more arsenic from the soil as the rice plant grows.
This toxin can build up in the body, which is especially dangerous to babies and small children. Frequent exposure to arsenic at an early age is associated with ADHD, lower IQ, and increased risk of some cancers.
Since Consumer Reports first made the public aware of heavy metals in baby food, very little has changed.
In 2016, the FDA issued guidance to cereal makers and put pressure on companies to lower arsenic levels in their foods. But the FDA hasn’t set a limit for arsenic in rice cereal.
Healthy Babies Bright Futures tested 42 containers of infant cereals according to a report published in 2017. While cereal makers have taken some steps to reduce arsenic levels since 2014, rice cereal still contains too much arsenic.
According to a recent Consumer Reports article, arsenic levels in baby food are still too high. And a 2021 congressional report found that cereal makers under-report the high levels of toxins in baby food and continue to keep these cereals on the market.
So what can you do to lower your baby’s exposure to arsenic?
The best advice I can give is to stay informed and offer your baby alternatives to baby rice cereal.
What Are the Alternatives to Baby Rice Cereal?
While Consumer Reports found that Gerber and Earth’s Best have lower arsenic levels than other brands, the arsenic levels are still concerning.
Providing a variety of cereal grains to your infant can help lower arsenic levels in your child’s diet. Here are some grains that are good alternatives to baby rice cereal.
- Baby oatmeal (whole grain and single grain)
- Whole wheat
Best Baby Cereals
Forbes Health put together a panel of experts, including a pediatrician and registered dietitian. Here are the highest-rated non-rice cereals.
- Earth’s Best Organic Whole Grain Oatmeal Infant Cereal
- Gerber Single-Grain Oatmeal Baby Cereal
- Earth’s Best Organic Multi-Grain Infant Cereal
- Gerber Whole Wheat Baby Cereal
- Happy Baby Organics Clearly Crafted Oatmeal Baby Cereal
- Happy Baby Organics Clearly Crafted Oats & Quinoa Baby Cereal
Tips to Reduce Arsenic Exposure from Baby Rice Cereal
- Provide a variety of single-grain cereals, including rice, baby oatmeal, and barley.
- Wait until six months old to start your infant on solids. While introducing solids at 4 to 6 months is commonly recommended, waiting until 6 months to start solids will help lower the accumulation of toxic heavy metals in very young infants.
- Choose rice cereal brands with the lowest amount of arsenic such as Earth’s Best and Gerber.
- Look for baby cereals fortified with iron. Iron is vital for brain development. Infants get all of their nutrients from formula or breast milk and first foods like cereals.
- Try making your own baby food. One benefit of store-bought baby food is that it’s fortified with key nutrients such as iron. If you give homemade baby food a try, be sure your baby gets enough iron for healthy growth and development.
Final Thoughts About the Safety of Rice Cereal for Baby
Rice cereal was known as the safest and best first food for babies for many parents. So it may be surprising and upsetting to learn that baby cereals on the market contain high levels of toxic heavy metals.
As a children’s nutrition expert, I advise limiting how much rice cereal and rice products you offer your baby. Variety in the diet is the key to protecting your baby from over-exposure to toxins in food.
It’s best to provide a variety of cereal grains to keep arsenic levels in the diet as low as possible.
Need more help navigating your baby’s first foods?
Get my book, The Smart Mom’s Guide to Starting Solids! It’ll take you through my step-by-step approach to starting solids – including everything you need to know!
You may also want to read The Baby Formula Shortage: What’s A Parent to Do? Or, The Ultimate Guide to Baby’s Nutrition in the First Year.